Commentary: Will reason or unreason prevail?

  • 29 October 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Lawrence Krauss

IT IS the eve of the US presidential election, and the dissonance between science and politics has never been greater.

Last month, I spoke at the third Beyond Belief meeting at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. I was reminded of a discussion I had with Richard Dawkins about science and religion at the first Beyond Belief conference two years ago. It blossomed into a dialogue that Dawkins and I wrote for Scientific American.

In it I argued: "Faith lies in the realm of human activity that has little to do with reason... For most people religion is one way of making sense of an irrational world, a world that is not fair, in which human justice is an afterthought."

It occurred to me that this statement could equally apply to the current state of US politics. The evidence? For starters, Sarah Palin. It should be obvious to anyone following her campaign for US vice-president that she is ignorant. Her outlandish claims include that the vice-president is in charge of the US Senate, and that dinosaurs and humans cohabited. She is also uninterested: when asked, she was unable to name a single newspaper or magazine she reads. She is unqualified: she was unable to list a single Supreme Court decision of importance beyond Roe vs Wade. And she is so inarticulate as to appear semi-literate: in unscripted interviews she was unable to put together intelligible sentences on topics ranging from foreign policy to financial issues. John McCain's choice of Palin as his running mate demonstrated such poor judgement that this alone should have removed him from serious contention for the presidency.

But it didn't. And that was more surprising to me than Palin's presence on the ticket. Otherwise intelligent and non-dogmatic people who support McCain seem to have thrown reason out of the window. For example, David Brooks at The New York Times wrote a column praising her intellect and abilities even after she failed to answer directly almost all the questions put to her at the vice-presidental debate.

Journalists covering the debate have not done much better. For example, when Palin reiterated her claim that climate change is not human-induced, reporters failed to question the logic of her support for McCain's policy of attempting to address industrial greenhouse gas generation. If human emissions are not contributing to the problem, why spend money on cutting them?

At the same time it has become clear that McCain himself, while proclaiming his support of science, is less than steadfast in that support. Twice in the past three presidential debates, when asked for an example of government waste, McCain did not choose a Bridge to Nowhere, a $100,000 bulletproof toilet or any other obvious example. He focused on government funding for science and science education.

One of his targets was "$3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago". Chicago's Adler Planetarium was the first ever built in the western hemisphere, and has hosted more than 35 million people since it opened. It is trying to raise money - no federal funds have yet been assigned - to refurbish its 80-year-old Sky Theater, in order "to inspire [Illinois children] to engage in exploring science". Attacking this project sends a disturbing message: that encouraging science literacy is not worthy of government support.

John McCain sends the message that science literacy is not worthy of support

McCain also attacked a study of grizzly bear DNA in Montana. Biologists argue that this research is of vital importance in understanding the population dynamics of this threatened species. You can debate whether this project deserves high priority for funding, but is it really a good example of government waste?

For those US voters who will base their decision on 4 November at least in part on a concern about the importance of science and reason, the choice is clear. My own faith in the power of rationality in politics will be renewed if, as now seems likely, I wake up on 5 November listening to President-Elect Barack Obama on the news.

From issue 2680 of New Scientist magazine, 29 October 2008, page